Smart Inhaler Makes Treating Asthma Into A Video Game

This clever UI is meant to insure that asthma patients use their inhalers properly. And it works.

5,000 people with asthma end up in the hospital each day. It’s a number that’s at least partially avoidable, since as many as 75% of patients are using their inhalers improperly.


The T-Haler, a prototype designed by Cambridge Consultants, is an inhaler that trains patients in using inhalers. Fitted with Wi-Fi and sensors, the T-Haler can sense how it’s being used and give real-time feedback on a computer screen. The design firm claims that, with just three minutes of training with the T-Haler, proper use of inhalers skyrockets from 20% to 60%.

The system is actually tracking three components to proper inhaler use: shaking, actuation (pumping the inhaler), and inhalation (sucking down the meds). Each step sounds simple enough, yet each is critical.

In response, the T-Haler evaluates each step with on-screen software. And during the actuation/inhalation phase, a ball rolls across a makeshift tic-tac-toe board filled with things that can go wrong, like breathing in too softly. If everything goes right, the ball rolls down a hole in the middle.

Truth be told, the T-Haler’s software scrapes the bottom of the barrel of game prerequisites–remove the ball and we can’t call it a game at all–but that’s okay. The software is more about interactivity and engagement than it is lasting fun. Rather than presenting a patient with a booklet full of illustrations and instructions, people with asthma can learn what counts: Did I use my inhaler correctly, and if not, what should I be doing differently?

Does the inhaler really need computer software at all? Using T-Haler’s same basic premise and core technology, but replacing the on-screen feedback with, say, preprogrammed vocal feedback and an onboard speaker, a patient could be walked through the process of using their inhaler in real time and hear, not just once, but each and every time if they’ve used their inhaler properly. Then, have the program sync with an iPhone app instead of a computer, and suddenly a patient can chart their successful usage over time and share the information with their doctor.

Because, while it’s pure speculation on my part, I bet that using an inhaler every day is a lot like flossing: You learn the technique once–a by-product of a particularly scary trip to the dentist–and for a while, you’re diligent to the point of being smug about it, feeling better than 90% of society who surely isn’t flossing as well as you are.


But over time, you find the slightest ways to cheat. Maybe you don’t always get that tooth with the sharp filling. Maybe you skip Wednesdays. Maybe you eat Pop Rocks soaked in Fanta for breakfast. Out of seemingly nowhere, three years pass, and nothing remains from your stint with oral hygiene than the lone flossing stick rotting in the floorboards of your bathroom sink. You’ve since moved away from that apartment, from the city life altogether. But there the loyal flossing stick remains, hoping that one day, just maybe, your teeth will come back.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.